Fr Dermot preaches on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 18th 2020

John 14:15-21

“The Laundress”, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, c1886.

I have been thinking about snails,  or rather the silvery trails they leave behind them. You see,  there is now a pattern of silver slime on the stone behind the tabernacle.  It catches the morning light as I sit for morning prayer.  Like most normal things it is both unremarkable and profoundly remarkable. The slime that dries and now remains was simply a means for the snail to get about. With that mucus a snail can get right up that pane of glass behind me. It is not intended as a sign of its presence.  And yet it is a sign for me.  

This gospel passage can be thought of in terms of absence and presence.  I read somewhere that presence and absence should not be thought of as opposites, but rather as sisters, for the opposite of presence is not absence but vacancy.  Absence is charged. Indeed, sometimes, it is more highly charged than presence.  Schoolboy Shakespeare: in the Merchant of Venice: Gratiano says   “All things that are, are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d.”

Absence lingers somewhere between the remembrance of presence, whether good or bad, and the anticipation of that same presence, either good or bad.  It is never neutral. Absence always implies presence. 

These chapters of John’s Gospel, are set on the night of his betrayal, when he will be taken from them, which is also the night on which he gave us the Eucharist.  “One of you will betray me”, sits at table with “Do this in memory of me”.   For us, as we hear this gospel, we are taken back again to that night which is charged both with his presence and his absence.  

In these long discourses, Jesus talks a lot about his going away and about his returning, about laying down his life and taking it up again, about being rooted in him as a branch in the vine, about sorrow and about joy, about the peace, which he gives not as the world gives.  But in these chapters,  he doesn’t use the words “Presence” or “Absence”.   Luke does use the word “presence”.  It is how the Archangel Gabriel introduces himself to Zechariah.  “I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God”.   What an introduction!!  The word translated as presence here literally means who stands before the face of, that is in the sight of,  God.   The concepts of presence and absence are not John’s words but they certainly are ours and are central to the tradition of faith, which we have received.  Both these words come from the Latin word for being “esse”. Absence is about being apart, ab -esse, whereas presence comes from being with,  praes-esse.   In each, focus is on esse, that is  being.  That is why the opposite of presence is non-being, or vacancy and nothingness, a vaccuum,   a void.  Now in this language of presence and absence there is a very definite standing back, a certain level of abstraction. 

It all depends on where you start from, where you really position yourself.  I can approach the world from a distance as if it were some kind of incredibly complex puzzle, as if the world and my experience of myself in the world was something to be figured out, as if it were out there.   Or I can approach from within, which is more honest, because I cannot approach the world and myself from outside, because there is no outside position.  The world is more like someone I gradually get to know, to enjoy or dislike, but someone I spend time with, as I would a friend or a foe. It is a more truthful place to begin.  This is how the Hebrew Scriptures approach knowledge.  It is interpersonal.  It sometimes draws even on very intimate human relationships, to speak about knowing or keeping God’s Law. This is the background to these passages from John.  He goes away, he returns, he sends a Counsellor to be with us and more than this to dwell in us.  We cannot really grasp their sense unless we stand within them as it were.  Unless we make them our own, which is of course to say, that we let them make their home in us.  

The word which is translated here as “Counsellor”  has spilled over into English as a name for the Holy Spirit. It is Paraclete.  It literally means someone who is called to be beside you.   So it someone who can come to your aid.  The idea is of someone who stands beside you, especially if you find yourself in the dock  in a court of law. Someone who can speak for you in your defence.  Someone who can intercede for you.  Someone who just is there for you.  So it gets translated here as Counsellor, but others translations, say Advocate, Consoler, Comforter.  The root meaning is of someone standing beside you and with you and who  is  completely for you. As they say these days someone “who has your back”.  

It is the promise by which we live and move and have our being.  It sits within the ancient promise made by God to Abraham, when God made a Covenant with him.  We get this in the Benedictus, the song of Zachariah which we sing every day at morning prayer, where it says that freed from fear “we might serve him in holiness and justice all the days of our lives in his presence” (Luke 1: 75).  Again, the word presence is our translation, what the Greek word actually means, “before the face of “or “in the sight of”  as in Gabriel’s greeting to Zachariah.  

This passage from John is about the working out of  God’s promise to Abraham and to Israel and also to us.  The promise holds good between the twin poles or sisters of presence and absence, where the Paraclete’s presence though gentle is deep and therefore all the more powerful.  It is like a deep well in a desert place,  that will never run dry.  Absence is never God’s.  He is there both in the familiar and unfamiliar.   But in this time when most people can’t receive him in communion, he is present.  Certainly, his absent is felt more keenly.  But this is not  vacancy.  Rather it is this charged longing, however it finds expression.   We live with both His presence and His absence at the best of times.  Maybe when this time is over we may understand more deeply that they are not as different as we thought they were. 

There is wonderful poem which I am going to read. It is a poem by the Irish poet, Ann Egan.  The sight of a primrose swaying in the breeze near a quarry lake reminds her of a young Irish woman who left Ireland to work as a maid in Philadelphia but whose every day is full of longing for the one she has left behind. 

“A Primose’s Sway”   by Ann Egan, from “The Wren Women”, Black Mountain Press 2003 

I watch a ripple cross 

the quarry’s wildness

fall asunder reflecting

a primrose’s loneliness.

I think of you, Anne Kelly, 

ancestor, emigrant, field girl

servant in Philadephia

your apron starched with longing,

for your home in the Derries.

Eyes blink and stare from brass

as you polish layer from layer

of a girl recalling her people.

Your knuckles lump and redden

With washing soda,  you wring 

memories of him under the holly. 

You scrub his words into collars

his whistle lathers the wash board,

mangles the laundry to heaps.

When you hang out the washing

the shirts clap unseen hands,

and you’re in his arms dancing. 

The flags give step for step

He’s whispering a future,

A new home past the quarry.

Linen sheets are sailing ships,

Dreams that make you leave

To steady a primrose’s sway

By the waters edge

where all shadows disappear.

Anne Kelly would never go home, but we will.   This is gospel passage is suffused with profound hope for those who long to be in his presence.   Of course, this is what Jesus calls eternal life. It is not about dying but somehow not really dying, but continuing in some unspecified and mysterious way.   Having some kind of lingering presence in a few human hearts. It is about real genuine living with Him. It is about living before the face of him.  And the key thing is that this has already begun in us and a sign of that is that longing for which we use the word absence.  The last lines from the Lamentations of Jeremiah,  which we have on Holy Saturday are as follows:

“my spirit ponders it continually and sinks within me.  But this I call to mind, in this I find my hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies have no end. They are new every morning and great is his faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion”, says my soul. “Therefore I shall hope in him.”

We come to this realisation by wining paths and stops and starts. The snail on the stone paving behind the tabernacle has left a winding trail as if it were going around in circles.  But circular routes do lead home, once you realise where you have started from. 

Fr Dermot preaches on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

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